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By Associated Press
GENEVA — Independent experts looking into allegations of sexual harassment at the U.N. agency that fights AIDS say it is plagued by “defective leadership,” a culture of impunity and a toxic working environment that cannot be changed unless its top official is replaced.
The investigative panel was created earlier this year following allegations of sexual harassment by staffers and calls from critics for executive director Michel Sidibé to resign.
But in a statement, Sidibé says he believes that he is the right man to turn around the organization.
Sidibé has denied claims that he tried to force an employee to drop allegations that she was sexually assaulted by his former deputy.
In a damning new report released on Friday, the four experts cited a “vacuum of accountability” and said UNAIDS leaders had failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.
“The panel has no confidence that the current leadership can deliver cultural change when that leadership has been largely responsible for the current malaise,” the report said. Its authors interviewed or received written submissions from more than 100 staffers and surveyed about 60 percent of the agency’s staffers.
Just as the report was made public, UNAIDS issued a statement promising an “agenda for change” to build upon the recommendations of the panel and to ensure the “highest standards of accountability and integrity.” In it, the agency chief suggested that he believed that he should lead it.
“I have taken on board the criticisms made by the panel,” Sidibé said in the statement. “In proposing this agenda, I am confident that we can focus on moving forward.”
He said he would spend a year making UNAIDS a workplace “where everyone feels safe and included.”
The UNAIDS chief is appointed by the U.N. secretary-general, who has the power to replace him. The independent panel’s report will be presented to the UNAIDS board next week.
UNAIDS spokeswoman Sophie Barton-Knotts said Sidibé “is fully aware that there is a lot of work to do — across all levels of the organization — and he is determined to lead that transformation.”
The panel, however, disagreed. It found solutions proposed by Sidibé to be “superficial and insufficient.” It also slammed Sidibé for failing to take responsibility for the organization he has led for eight years, saying his proposed changes “demonstrate a lack of insight into the magnitude of the problems.”
Numerous staffers complained that the agency was run like a patriarchy, with little oversight and outright retaliation against staffers who spoke out.
“UNAIDS is like a predators’ prey ground,” wrote one interviewee. “You can use promises of jobs, contracts and all sorts of opportunities and abuse your power to get whatever you want. … I have seen senior white male colleagues dating local young interns or using UNAIDS resources to access sex workers.”
Such problems began spilling into the public spotlight after UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom went public earlier this year with allegations originally laid out in a sexual harassment and assault complaint filed in November 2016. In it, she alleged that Luiz Loures, once the agency’s deputy director for programs, had forcibly kissed and grabbed her in a Bangkok hotel elevator in May 2015 — claims Loures denied. He left UNAIDS earlier this year.
The World Health Organization office that investigated the case concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support Bostrom’s claims. After widespread criticism, UNAIDS reopened the investigation, saying additional evidence had emerged.
Brostrom told The Associated Press that she was still going over the 73-page report, but said she was pleased that the truth “is finally out.”